Taipei, Taiwan —
A Chinese dissident who was stranded in the transit area of a Taiwanese airport has arrived in Canada after Ottawa granted him asylum — but some observers say his path to safety, including stops in Laos, Thailand, and Taiwan, reflects the growing hardship that Chinese activists face when they try to leave China.
“This case shows how difficult it is for Chinese human rights defenders to escape the country,” William Nee, research and advocacy coordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a U.S.-based activist network, told VOA by phone.
“[Since] most activists either face exit bans or have no valid passports, they often have to make amazing escapes similar to the Underground Railroad in the U.S. era of slavery, where people have to escape in clandestine means,” he added.
Chen Siming, a Chinese activist known for commemorating the Tiananmen Square Massacre in China and who has been repeatedly detained around the Tiananmen anniversary, fled China for Laos in late July. But days after he arrived in Laos, he saw video of Chinese human rights lawyer Lu Siwei being arrested by Laotian authorities. To avoid the same fate as Lu, Chen decided to cross into Thailand.
“After arriving in Thailand, some Chinese refugees advised me to apply for an interim asylum status with the UNHCR,” he told VOA by phone. “But after UNHCR granted me asylum status, I started hearing rumors that they vowed to bring me back to China, which made me feel that Thailand is no longer a safe place to be.”
In the end, Chen bought a ticket from Thailand to Guangzhou that included a transit in Taipei. “I know Taiwan is a democracy and I know the government won’t send me back to Thailand or China based on one official’s decision since they are subject to public scrutiny,” he told VOA. “I feel relatively safe about staying in the Taiwanese airport’s transit area.”
After spending almost two weeks at the Taiwanese airport, where he said authorities took very good care of him, Chen was given political asylum by Canada and boarded a flight heading to Vancouver on October 5.
Despite initial concern that he might be stranded at the Taiwanese airport for months, Chen credited his swift resettlement to the global attention on his case, support from local human rights organizations, and the coordination between authorities from Taiwan, Canada, and the U.S.
“I feel extremely lucky to be able to arrive in Canada within such a short time and I’m grateful for all the help and support from government officials in Taiwan, the U.S., and Canada as well as from many friends who I haven’t met in person,” Chen told VOA.
The Chinese embassy in Canada didn’t respond to VOA’s request for comment.
Chinese asylum seekers face growing challenges
Chen had better luck than Chinese human rights lawyer Lu Siwei and Chinese activist Yang Zewei.
Laotian authorities arrested Lu on July 28 as he tried to travel to the U.S. to reunite with his daughter and wife. Despite the efforts to advocate for his release and intervention from foreign governments, authorities in Laos still deported him to China.
According to his wife Zhang Chunxiao, Lu’s family members only learned about his deportation after the Xindu Detention Center in Sichuan Province asked them to send clothes, medicine, and money. However, the detention center didn’t specify when Lu was deported to China.
In another case, Chinese free speech activist Yang Zewei, better known as Qiao Xinxin, went missing in the Laotian capital Vientiane on May 31 after he launched an online campaign against China’s internet censorship. Following months of silence on his whereabouts, authorities in China’s Hunan province informed Yang’s family that he was held at a juvenile detention center in Hengyang City in August, according to Radio Free Asia.
Activists say these cases reflect the growing risks that Chinese dissidents face when they try to flee China.
“Overall, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for overseas activists and human rights organizations to rescue Chinese dissidents trying to leave the country, as Lu’s case has shown,” Zhou Fengsuo, the executive director of Human Rights in China, a New York-based advocacy group, told VOA by phone.
“In Lu’s case, various actors put in resources to try to rescue him, but in the end, the result was not good,” he added.
In his view, the biggest challenge that Chinese dissidents face now is the Chinese government’s growing attempt to prevent them from leaving China or the continuous attempts to threaten or arrest them even after they have left the country. “This is a very worrying trend,” Zhou said.
The growing need to protect Chinese activists
Nee from Chinese Human Rights Defenders says Southeast Asia has become a danger zone for Chinese dissidents attempts to reach safety.
“If you are a Chinese dissident, you end up putting yourself in very sketchy situations [by going through] countries that are completely beholden to Beijing and that creates a high degree of risk,” he told VOA.
Nee hopes democratic countries like Canada, the U.S., and European countries will recognize the growing need to protect Chinese dissidents on the run and provide them with refugee status.
“The case of Lu shows that he defended political dissidents in China, but now he is at risk of ill-treatment and torture,” he said. “Lu’s situation now proves why people were trying to prevent him from being sent back to China.”
As for Chen, who views his own experience as one of the luckier cases, he hopes to contribute to the pro-democracy movement abroad because he thinks there is no room for similar activities in China. “I come to Canada because it offers a safer environment, and I hope to contribute to the efforts to promote democratic transition in China,” he told VOA.